What is glioblastoma?

Glioblastoma is a type of tumor which forms in the brain or spinal cord and affects the central nervous system. Unfortunately, it is a fast-growing tumor with no cure. 

More than 13,000 Americans are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year. In Rhode Island, there is a high incidence of glioblastoma relative to its population with about 60 to 70 patients treated each year at Rhode Island Hospital.

Glioblastoma treatment and life expectancy

While it is considered rare, glioblastoma is the most common and aggressive type of brain cancer and is resistant to treatment. Patients diagnosed with glioblastoma typically survive for 15 to 17 months, with a five-year survival rate of just five percent. 

Glioblastoma vaccine offers new hope 

Lifespan is leading the local efforts in a large clinical trial to study the effectiveness of a newly developed vaccine for glioblastoma, with promising results. 

Among its key findings, the Phase III clinical trial of the DCVax-L cancer vaccine extended survival for patients with both newly diagnosed and recurrent glioblastoma, the most common and lethal form of brain cancer.

The results of the vaccine trial involving more than 300 patients show the median survival rate for newly diagnosed patients increased to 22.4 months, and the five-year survival rate more than doubled, increasing from five to 13 percent.

This marks the first time in nearly 20 years that a Phase III trial of a systemic treatment has shown such an improvement in survival in newly diagnosed glioblastoma patients. The findings indicate that the non-toxic injections seem to activate the patient’s neuroimmune cells, causing them to attack the cancer and reducing the chances of the malignancy coming back. For patients with glioblastoma, the vaccine is a new lease on life, and combined with other treatments, can help patients survive longer.

Glioblastoma symptoms

Glioblastoma can impact different areas of the brain and symptoms may vary from one individual to another. In general, the following are symptoms of glioblastoma:

  • Headaches. This is a hallmark symptom of brain tumors. They typically become more frequent over time and unlike “normal” headaches, often they do not respond to over-the-counter medications. The intensity may increase with lying down, bending over, or straining, and may even cause nausea or vomiting.
  • Seizures. Brain tumors such as glioblastoma can cause seizures that can range from mild, with unresponsive episodes, numbness, and tingling, to the more severe and well-known uncontrollable arm and leg movements or even loss of consciousness.
  • Changes in mood, personality, or functioning. Glioblastoma can cause mood changes or cause people to become withdrawn, anxious, or depressed. Feelings of drowsiness or confusion, or changes to behavior such as a loss of inhibitions may also be signs of a brain tumor. 
  • Loss of balance. A brain tumor can affect an individual’s ability to maintain balance and coordination. 
  • Changes in speech. Difficulty finding words, inability to express themselves, or a lack of understanding can be symptoms of a glioblastoma.
  • Sensory changes. Because glioblastoma affects the central nervous system, changes to the senses are common. Changes to a person’s ability to hear or smell may be associated with a brain tumor, as well as vision changes, such as blurred or double vision or loss of sight. The sense of touch may also be affected. 

While these symptoms do not mean you have a brain tumor, if you are experiencing any of these, it’s important to talk to your doctor. 

Causes of glioblastoma and risk factors

Unfortunately, experts still do not know what causes glioblastoma. It is most common in those aged 45 to 70. While men appear to have a slightly higher risk, all ages and genders can be affected. There are several factors that are believed to increase the risk of glioblastoma, including:

  • Exposure to pesticides, petroleum, synthetic rubber, vinyl chloride and other chemicals.
  • Genetic conditions, such as neurofibromatosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome and Turcot syndrome that are known to cause tumors.
  • Previous radiation therapy to the head.

If you are experiencing signs of a brain tumor, we can help. Learn more about the Brain and Spine Tumor Center at the Lifespan Cancer Institute and how we can help you. 

Heinrich Elinzano, MD

Heinrich Elinzano, MD

Dr. Heinrich Elinzano is an adult neurologist, with subspecialty training in neuro-oncology and spinal cord injury medicine, and is also an assistant professor of neurology at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He is experienced in the management of tumors of the central nervous system and has a particular interest in conducting clinical trials for the treatment of primary brain tumors and the neurological complications of systemic cancer.